It’s no question that Turkey encompasses some of the most important Christian monuments since the birth of the religion. One aspect of the land’s history is its development of Christianity, both spiritually and politically. Up until 1922, Izmir was a stronghold for Christian communities, involving Greeks, Armenians, Levantines, French, and Italians. Living in Izmir today, one may find that hard to believe. But amid all the minarets, the historical and religious significance of the city’s Christian past is reincarnating itself this year. Two former Greek Orthodox churches are set for complete restoration to help preserve Izmir’s rich diverse history, as well as solidify stronger ties between its neighboring country.
The first church is Agios Voukolos (Aya Vukla in Turkish), which is located in Izmir’s former Armenian Basmane district. Agios, meaning “Saint” or “Holy”, is the root word of the later developed “Hajj”, which found its way into Islamic vocabulary meaning the “holy” pilgrimage to Mecca. To this day, many Greeks bare a last name beginning with “hajji”, meaning someone who made a pilgrimage to either Constantinople or Jerusalem. The name of the church holds strong historical ties to the city. Named after the Orthodox Christian Saint Voukolos, who was a student of Saint John the Evangelist, he became the first bishop of Smyrna. The church was constructed in 1860 during a time where Greeks and Armenians were incredibly prosperous within the Ottoman empire, thus, the church served the Greeks and Armenian Christians, as it was referred to as “Hayhurum”, meaning Armenian-Greeks. During this time, there were several large churches including Aghia Fotini and Aghios Giorgos, located in Alsancak and Konak, however after the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, all were burned down, leaving Aya Vukla the lone surviving Greek Orthodox church in downtown Izmir.
When approaching the church, one can almost hear the voices of the past protruding off its crumbling stonewalls. Amongst the church doorway, a Greek inscription reads: “Paid by the Association of Ladies”. This sign alone is a mark of the established, high-level society, which lived here in the 1800s. Not merely a religious group, this was a fully functioning community that held different offices and community establishments, such as a woman’s organization. Stepping inside, the church is unfortunately an empty shell, stripped of its iconography, sleek marble craftsmanship, and scent of burning candles and incense. Luckily, the actual structure itself holds strong, and promises a bold and beautiful future with its restoration.
The second church is located in Çesme, a beautiful seaside village, and home once to a wealthy community of Ottoman Greeks. Named Agios Haralambos, the church was built in 1832, named after the saint who was born in Magnesia, today’s Turkish state of Manisa. Known for his strict adherence to Christianity and rebelliousness to the Roman Empire, he was martyred at the age of 113 years old by the Emperor Servius. The church falls in line with the saint’s stubbornness to give up, as it still stands in tact amongst the shopping district in Çesme, a few steps before making it to the bay where the Çesme Castle stands. Its size and structure quality show that the Christian community was not only large, but very wealthy.
My family lineage being from Çesme, I wondered looking at the structure, what the village must have been like when they lived here. What would these walls say if they could talk about the people before 1922? Knowing that my great grandparents spoke fluent Turkish, along with their Greek, I can only imagine a romantic idea of it being a magical time, filled with cultural traditions and celebrations shared between Greeks and Turks. I hope the renovations bring merriment to Izmir once again, bridging gaps, and building a brotherly bond that once was.
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